Even With Incoming Vaccine, PHSKC Warns Against Relaxing Masking, Social Distancing Practices

by Carolyn Bick

Though a vaccine is on the way, the COVID-19 situation throughout the state, including in King County — particularly in South King County — appears as though it is going to get much worse, before it gets better.

In a press conference on Dec. 11, Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC) Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin laid out the increasingly bad situation the County is facing. Over the past seven days, he said, the County has seen an average of 650 new cases of COVID-19 per day. The number of COVID-19-related deaths per day have ceased to gradually rise, and instead are rapidly rising, currently standing at seven deaths per day. This is up from two deaths per day in September. 

There has been a leveling-off of hospitalizations, but this doesn’t mean that the numbers are good. Duchin said that more than 80 percent of King County hospitals’ acute care beds are occupied; 10 percent of those occupied beds are people with COVID-19. Similarly, intensive care unit (ICU) beds are already 81 percent occupied. About 20 percent of those occupied ICU beds are with people with COVID-19. The Emerald has shared an image of data from PHSKC’s COVID-19 dashboard below.

PHSKC data as of Dec. 10, 2020.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) currently predicts a total of a little more than 7,200 deaths statewide by April 1, 2021. Even with the addition of a rapid vaccine rollout — in other words, the best-case scenario, at this point, since it is clear by the numbers that Washingtonians will not adopt universal masking or social distancing — that number still stands at more than 6,600 deaths statewide by April 1, 2021. 

These same predictions still pin the state at 54 deaths per day at the pandemic’s projected February peak without rapid vaccine rollout, and 51 deaths per day at the pandemic’s February peak with rapid vaccine rollout. Should Washingtonians adopt universal masking, the IMHE predicts a significantly lower rate of deaths per day.

Screenshot of peak projected deaths per day from the IHME.

South King County in particular has been an ongoing hotbed of COVID-19. With the exception of the first few months of the pandemic, South King County has been the hardest-hit area in King County, with regards to the number of positive cases and hospitalizations. Several areas within South King County are among the hardest-hit areas of the county, with regards to the number of deaths reported.

In response to the Emerald’s question as to whether PHSKC can or is planning to do anything else in addition to the recently announced new, free COVID-19 testing site in Enumclaw, Duchin appeared to say that there isn’t much else PHSKC can do, at this point. He said that the question “illustrates the need to continue to do everything that we are currently doing and try to enhance our activities as much as possible.

“One of the challenges we have is the fiscal cliff we are facing, because, as you know, we have not been funded, for example, to do the vaccine implementation program. We are waiting for the [federal] stimulus dollars that we can use not only to build our vaccination program, but also to enhance many of the other activities that we’re doing, including testing, community outreach, isolation and quarantine with contact tracing, and so on,” Duchin said. “So, to the extent that we can build our team and enhance those activities, I think we will all be better off. And I am hoping to be able to do that very soon.”

Based on the data, though, it would appear that people’s actions are undercutting PHSKC’s best efforts, and hurting those most vulnerable to the virus. Among the most vulnerable are those who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), many of whom live in South King County. They also tend to hold essential jobs — sometimes multiple essential jobs — in places like grocery stores and restaurants and cannot work from home. Duchin said in a late November PHSKC blog post that “[r]estaurants accounted for the second highest number of non-healthcare-facility outbreaks reported to us since the pandemic began.”

Though the first rounds of vaccines are slated to go to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, such as nurses and doctors who work directly with COVID-19 patients, as well as first responders and those who live and work in congregate settings, it is unclear at this time whether essential workers who work in grocery stores or restaurants will be prioritized in the second round of vaccinations. 

State health officials said in a press briefing on Dec. 9 that it is likely those who live unhoused in congregate settings will be included in this second group, but that the state is waiting on federal guidance, before making any firm determinations.

In response to a reporter’s question in the Dec. 11 press conference, Duchin also warned against the assumption that vaccine distribution will go off without a hitch. He said the County is waiting to hear from the state “how much vaccine we will have available, how much vaccine our partners will have available, where those resources will be allocated, and then we will make more concrete plans that we can share with you.

“At this point, we don’t have any vaccine in hand, and it’s a good opportunity for me to remind everyone that this whole business is uncertain. There’s a lot of uncertainty associated with every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, as you know — related to … the virus itself and how it works and what it does, but also related to the vaccine, as it’s developed quickly and rolled out,” Duchin explained. “There’s uncertainty around production, numbers of doses. There will be multiple vaccines available at some point. We will have to see which combinations we get here locally, and how that impacts logistics around vaccine implementation and rollout, and then there will be unanticipated snafus, I guarantee you, along the way.”

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them on Twitter, and check out more of their work here and here.

Featured image is PHSKC’s most current data showing the geographical distribution of death associated with COVID-19.